House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES, SCIENCE AND SKILLS COMMITTEE
Wednesday 28 January 2009
PROFESSOR RICK TRAINOR, PROFESSOR MALCOLM GRANT, PROFESSOR LES EBDON CBE and PROFESSOR GEOFFREY CROSSICK
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee
on Wednesday 28 January 2009
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Mr Gordon Marsden
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Rick Trainor, President, Universities UK; Professor Malcolm Grant, Chairman of the Russell Group of Universities; Professor Les Ebdon CBE, Chair of Million+; and Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Warden, Goldsmiths, University of London, representing the 1994 Group, gave evidence.
Chairman: Can I welcome our first panel of witnesses to this, our first formal evidence session on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee's inquiry into Students and Universities. This session is particularly about issues affecting undergraduate students from institutions and universities in higher education specifically in England, but it may be that you need to draw on experience from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and we are perfectly happy with that. Could I first of all ask my colleagues if they have any interest to declare before we introduce the witnesses?
Dr Iddon: I am a parliamentary adviser to the Royal Society of Chemistry. I am a member of the University and College Union. I am a member of the External Advisory Board in the School of Chemistry at Manchester University, and I think that I am still a visiting professor at the University of Liverpool in the chemistry department.
Dr Gibson: I am still a professor at the UEA - just!
Chairman: You might not be at the end of this inquiry!
Ian Stewart: I am a member of Unite, the union, and I am a member of the Council at Salford University.
Q1 Chairman: I am on the Court of Birmingham University. Our first panel of witnesses are Professor Rick Trainer, the President of Universities UK; Professor Malcolm Grant, Chairman of the Russell Group; Professor Les Ebdon, the Chair of Million+; and Professor Geoffrey Crossick, representing the 1994 Group. Welcome to you all. Can I say that on this panel you all have equal status but, Malcolm, I am going to ask you, if there is someone you feel would be better answering a particular question, to ask, as the quasi-chair of your panel - but I do that purely because I am looking at you, rather than because you are more important than anybody else on the panel!
Professor Grant: I understand that, Chairman, and I am very happy to assist.
Q2 Chairman: I wonder therefore if I could start with you, Professor Grant. This is really trying to look at higher education from the students' point of view and it is mainly about undergraduates. Two weeks ago, Times Higher Education published its annual Student Experience Survey and, for the third year running, it was Loughborough University that came top. I wondered if you could briefly say what do you think matters most to students, and which universities in your view do you think are giving the best all-round student experience? What matters to them and who, in your opinion, is the best?
Professor Grant: Forgive me if I pass on the second part of your question but, on the first part of your question, I think that a number of things appeal to students and you can measure them by a number of indicators. My congratulations go to Loughborough, but I think that the choice of Loughborough as one of the most popular universities is down to being a relatively small institution that can create a sense of intimacy and personal relationships between students and the faculty who teach them. You will find a similar sort of intimacy in the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, where the loyalty and the allegiance of the students is more commonly to the colleges than it is to the university, which has less of an intimate personality. However, look at the other indicators as well. Look at the strength of response, both in the NSS survey and in the NUS survey, which demonstrates one of the highest levels of satisfaction with higher education compared with other quasi-public services in the country. Look at the very powerful figures which indicate overseas students' interest in coming to study in the UK. I think that it is rather important for the Committee to see the student experience in the round and to understand the causes that induce students from within the UK and outside the UK still to see this as one of the leading countries for higher education.
Q3 Chairman: Professor Trainor, you are President of Universities UK and so you see all the universities. What do you think is the key thing that students are looking for in terms of university?
Professor Trainor: I agree with Professor Grant that a sense of intimacy is certainly a help. Fundamentally, students are looking for an assurance that their interests are being looked after, and I think that can happen in a variety of ways. Students differ tremendously, as you know, in the type of courses that they pursue and the format in which they are organised. I think that it is up to each university to marshal the resources it has at its command - and it is of course important that those resources be adequate to the task - in order to give students a sense that they are being properly looked after. I would emphasise, as Professor Grant did, that, although some universities come higher than others in the National Student Survey, the overall level of satisfaction is very high. Although we are not complacent about that, I think that there are good grounds for satisfaction there. We have to build on the stronger aspects, as perceived by the students.
Professor Ebdon: Perhaps I could add to that, first of all to endorse what Professor Grant has said in terms of the very high levels of satisfaction. In fact we are talking about very small differences in satisfaction in a wide variety of universities and, overall, an excellent level of satisfaction. That is against a context of great diversity amongst the student body. I think that your question disguises the fact that there is not a typical student. Forty-seven per cent of my students at the University of Bedfordshire are over the age of 24 before they join us, yet people always assume that students are 18-year-olds. The thing that students at my own university, and I think many similar universities, are most interested in is improving their prospects of employability. That may not be true of all students but it is certainly true of students who tend to return to education at a mature age. They are looking to improve their job prospects. Of course, that is a very significant thing at a time when we are going into a recession.
Professor Crossick: We are all agreeing with the principal lines of what has been said and I agree with that. I want to add something else, which is that most students at university want to be stimulated. I find that very strongly with students in my own institution. Last week we had an awards ceremony for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had been given large scholarships, and I talked to one of them. She had come from a difficult educational background and I said, "How are you finding the course?" She had been in for one term. She said, "It's an awful lot more than I thought and it is making me think an awful lot more than I expected". I said, "Is that a problem?" and she said, "No, it's great!". I think that is something we must not lose sight of. One of the things that universities provide is a stimulus to young people, and to older people coming into higher education, to think in imaginative and different ways. I think that is what they want.
Q4 Chairman: Do you think, Professor Crossick, that if the student body as a whole were actually listening to this first piece of evidence from four very distinguished leaders of university groups, they would say that that bears a real relationship to what they are feeling on the campuses? You paint a picture between you of a perfect world, where every university is wonderful and all the students are happy. For instance, in terms of involving students in the life of the university rather than in the life of the bar, what is actually happening as far as your group are concerned? Are there any real examples of that? It is not a real world you are talking about.
Professor Crossick: Your question was about what we believed students wanted, not what they were necessarily being given. Of course, the world is not perfect. If you had asked us where there were tensions, we could talk about some of the problems - and doubtless we will get the opportunity to in the course of this meeting - and to talk about some of the ways in which universities find it a challenge to deliver exactly what they want in current circumstances. I think that we are broadly succeeding and I think that the National Student Survey shows that. This is students on their own, with a huge response rate. Well over 80 per cent are satisfied with their education by the time they are third-years.
Q5 Chairman: They do not know anything else. They have nothing to compare it with, most of them, have they?
Professor Crossick: Most of them have been at school or college beforehand. One of the challenges that universities have risen to in the last few years is students coming on to university from an education environment which often was better resourced and more imaginatively resourced in IT terms and so on. We have risen to that challenge. Yes, of course they do not know other universities; but, as I think Professor Grant said, we get a much higher satisfaction rating than most other public services. People do not know other medical services either.
Q6 Chairman: Professor Trainor, why do not all universities publish how much time they will have in lectures; who will be the academic staff who are teaching them; the resources that are available to them, to give them the sorts of criteria by which they can judge between different universities, if you like, and also to evaluate the experience they have? None of that is made clear at all and I would have thought that would have been a key element of offering students a good experience - or am I being unfair?
Professor Trainor: Slightly, I think, in that there is a lot of information in the public domain. Universities, through their prospectuses and supplementary material, increasingly available on the web, tell students quite a lot about the kind of experience they will have on a particular course in the university. The students do not have to take the word of the institution for it, because they can now cross-refer to the publicly available information from the neutral source that is the National Student Survey. You may be correct, if I have your assumption correct, that even more information might be a good thing; but students are accumulating impressions of universities, which often matter more, by open days and visits of other kinds. In fact, students are very active consumers, with quite a lot of information. That, of course, is how they choose among the offers they get, in the many situations where they have multiple offers to choose from.
Q7 Chairman: With the greatest of respect, there are very few universities that advertise how little contact time students will actually have when they go to a particular university with academic staff. Very few seem to advertise the fact that, despite there may be great research departments, they will never actively meet some of those research-excellent professors. Why are they not doing that?
Professor Trainor: Evidence from the National Union of Students suggests that something like three-quarters of students are satisfied with the contact hours they receive. I think that this whole subject of contact hours is slightly misunderstood. The number of contact hours in the formal sense that are appropriate for different courses varies quite a lot. Even within a particular subject the teaching may be organised in different ways. Universities in recent years have put increasing emphasis on making their staff available at advertised times, above and beyond the contact hours, and many departments have an open-door policy. As for the access of research stars, certainly in my institution - King's College, London - the overwhelming majority of our academic staff do some significant undergraduate teaching; and I think that, roughly speaking, is the pattern across the country.
Q8 Mr Marsden: Professor Trainor, one of the aspects of student satisfaction is the balance of the time that they spend, as you have just touched on, between teaching and research and the ability of the one to feed into the other. Do you think the Government should accept the broad conclusions and the implications of grant distribution in the recent Research Assessment Exercise?
Professor Trainor: That is a slightly different issue, is it not?
Q9 Mr Marsden: It is not that different an issue, because the implications of the RAE proposals are to even out research money between a larger number of universities, and therefore that may have an impact on the student experience.
Professor Trainor: Indeed, but even under the current distribution of research money an effort is made in all universities to get research brought to bear on research and scholarship, of course, which is a related resource for the academics or the teachers.
Q10 Mr Marsden: How would you define the difference between research and scholarship?
Professor Trainor: Research is original inquiry; scholarship is information about a discipline at the highest level of available knowledge, I suppose.
Q11 Mr Marsden: So from that point of view those universities who do more of the second than the first should still be given a decent share of the pot under that definition, should they?
Professor Trainor: The position of Universities UK is that excellence should be funded where it is found. We also think it is necessary to look at the stability of funding from one year to another; but your original question, as I took it, was about the balance of time between teaching and research.
Q12 Mr Marsden: It was a dual question, to which I would like a dual answer.
Professor Trainor: I have given one half of it, I think. Would you like me to go on to the other?
Q13 Mr Marsden: I would like you to tell me what your view or what the view of UUK is on the proposals in the RAE.
Professor Trainor: I think I have given that in broad outline.
Q14 Chairman: What we are anxious to get at here is that you from Universities UK say - and indeed, Professor Crossick, your organisation has made the same point - that teaching and research are essential, and good-quality research is essential for good teaching in terms of the student experience. What we are anxious to find out - and certainly what I think Gordon Marsden is anxious to find out - is do you stick by that? Is that absolutely clear? Because there is then another question coming behind it.
Professor Grant: May I make two points on that? First of all, the interrelationship between teaching and research goes right back to the Humboldtian idea of a university as one of the fundamental pillars upon which a modern university should be constructed. Secondly, in the research-intensive end of the university sector we very strongly take the view that the finest teaching is informed by research. I think we also need to build onto that an understanding that a large proportion of what happens in those universities is at postgraduate level. I know that this is not part of this inquiry, Chairman, but in the Russell Group 30 per cent of our students are postgraduates; in a number of our institutions it is rising to parity with undergraduates. There is, if you like, a cross-institutional array of research and integration to teaching, to training and to PhD study. Thirdly, so far as the RAE is concerned, there are two phases to the exercise. First, an assessment by panels of the quality of research across 67 units of assessment in the country. The second phase is not yet complete. It is the allocation of funding against the findings of quality. That came last week to the board of HEFCE. There was a letter from the secretary of state outlining the nation's strategic needs for the allocation of QR. HEFCE have now adopted and approved a paper, which will accord with the secretary of state's strategic views. That paper, I understand, will be published today. The next phase of it will be ---
Q15 Chairman: I am really not anxious to get into this.
Professor Grant: No, but I wanted to explain to you where we were currently with the RAE.
Q16 Chairman: We just do not have the time during this session. I am really interested in this core issue and then I have to move on, I am afraid.
Professor Ebdon: Perhaps I could help with a response on this. Clearly, the Research Assessment Exercise has been declared a robust exercise by the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. I think that it is absolutely right that it has looked very carefully, in a very robust way, and has found excellence much more widely spread than in previous years. We should be celebrating that and we should be funding that.
Chairman: Professor Ebdon, that is not the point that we are trying to get at.
Q17 Mr Marsden: Can I come back to you on that, Professor Grant, because you have rightly reminded us of the role not just of the Russell Group but of other universities in terms of postgraduate - but we are not looking at that in this inquiry. There is an essential question here, is there not? If I am a student at whatever sort of university grouping, one of the things that I want to know is that part of my teaching experience will encompass some of the top experts in the field, and you have acknowledged that point. The point about the Research Assessment Exercise, as it has certainly up until now been carried through, is that there have been widespread allegations - "allegations" is perhaps too strong a word - widespread suggestions that, because of the emphasis on where people rank in it, in some universities - and I will not name individual ones - there has been a transfer fee culture whereby people have been poached for their research abilities, and most of the students there never see hide nor hair of the academic in question, certainly not on a regular basis. That is an issue, is it not?
Professor Grant: There are two questions. One is the poaching one, which I will not go into because I do not think that it relates to this inquiry. The second one is quite a serious issue. We are trying in British universities to spread resources thinly across a variety of measures of excellence. We need of course to ensure that we return strong performances on the RAE; so it is necessary that we provide sufficient time, resources and facilities for our leading researchers to perform strongly in the research. We punch way above our weight internationally in research output. The consequence, however, is not as bleak as you paint it. The consequence is not an inevitability that that is time taken away from teaching. I think that all of my colleague vice-chancellors would be able to point you to instances where we insist upon world-class research stars undertaking teaching across the institution. However, world-class research stars will not be spending hours in one-to-one supervisions with individual students.
Q18 Mr Marsden: Nobody does except at Oxbridge, on the whole.
Professor Grant: And not there either. You have to understand that we are struggling with limited resources to do our very best on all fronts. The students are not the victims of this; the students are the beneficiaries of it.
Q19 Chairman: We really have to move on, but one final point, Professor Crossick.
Professor Crossick: My final point is this. We have already made the point about the benefits of students learning in a strong research environment. The point I would want to add to that is that if you look at ---
Q20 Chairman: Perhaps you would just tell me where the evidence is that that occurs.
Professor Crossick: There are two types of evidence. One of them is, talk to students from research-strong departments in research-strong universities and you will see what their experience is. I do talk to them. I think that all the people on the panel do. Secondly, the really strong evidence is the National Student Survey. The National Student Survey's ranking of institutions does not suggest that there is any tension between being a research-strong institution and being a teaching-strong institution, from the students' point of view.
Q21 Chairman: Professor Crossick, your evidence and indeed that of Professor Grant is that if you have strong research in the university, that impacts positively on the teaching. Is that agreed?
Professor Crossick: Yes.
Q22 Chairman: Therefore, the spreading of research across all universities in order that we improve the access to research across all universities will improve teaching - yes or no?
Professor Crossick: It is essential that ---
Q23 Chairman: Yes or no?
Professor Crossick: I am not going to give you a yes/no answer, because in fact this Committee has a broad concern for the whole of the quality of what universities deliver.
Q24 Chairman: Absolutely.
Professor Crossick: It is therefore false to try and ask in this inquiry, "Do you think it is teaching that should benefit, and in another should it be research?". As Professor Grant said, we are responsible for managing the breadth of what we have to deliver to the taxpayer and to the public for the resources that we receive. That is research and teaching. I believe that in a research-strong institution students graduate with a very distinctive portfolio of skills and understanding and that, across the sector, there are a diverse range of ways in which that contribution to society and the economy is made. It is different in some institutions from others.
Q25 Chairman: Therefore, in those universities that are not research-intensive the teaching will not be as good.
Professor Crossick: It will be different.
Q26 Dr Gibson: You have not said anything about administration either. I seem to remember that, and it was one reason I got fed up. You have to do lots of other things, not just manage a whole department necessarily or your own lab. There came a time when people put up on the door, "Will see students only between 2 and 3". I remember that coming when there was a student increase, which meant that more and more time was taken away from actual contact with students, because they had one other activity called "administration". I am sure you would agree that all academics now have much more administration, which is necessary for the running of all the institutions.
Professor Ebdon: You said in opening that you wanted to look at this from a student perspective. I think that you are absolutely right: the student should be entitled, whichever university they are in, to have research-led teaching. All UK universities have signed up to the Bologna Declaration, which emphasises that all universities should be engaged in teaching, research and knowledge transfer; so I think that you are absolutely right.
Q27 Dr Harris: I am going to ask you about admissions policies and I will separate it out into two distinct issues. First, people presenting to the highly selective universities, all of whom have predictions or have three As; then I will ask you separately about where there is a differentiation in A-levels and what can be done to capture potential, versus simply academic attainment. Starting with the first, can you give reflections on how we do solve the problem of trying to select one out of five students for your course, when they all have or are reliably predicted to get three As? If you have a solution which is shown to work - and I would like to know if it has been shown to work in a fair way - how do we get consistency across the sector? Because if it is right for one university to do it and that is good practice, can we tolerate other universities not doing it?
Professor Grant: Can I start with that, Chairman, because I think the question was directed to the more selective end of the sector. Admissions is an area that worries us enormously, because there is a large amount of public interest in them, and it is generated of course by the press, because there is a feeling of injustice and unfairness if students are denied admission to a leading university. However, let me put it into context. First, in many of our courses the ratio of applications to places is more like 20 to one. In some of those highly specialised areas, selection is rather more easily undertaken because it depends upon a survey of an array of skills. For example, a student who is coming to do architecture, fine art or medicine will be examined on a different set of skills than they will be for other subjects. Secondly, within our institutions the A-level expectations do vary between disciplines. Thirdly, the historic approach to admissions has been to give a large measure of discretion and autonomy to well-trained admissions tutors and to academic staff who assist. Fourthly, there is quite a variety, though, within the sector between the extent to which interviews are offered as part of an admissions process and the extent to which they are not. One of the reasons for that is that you have a relatively small handful of universities which are almost always the first choice of applicants and therefore have a strong incentive to interview. If you are the second or third choice for applicants you cannot possibly interview all those who come through. Otherwise, you would be wasting a great deal of time. Finally, we are presented with a problem at the very highest levels because of the fine degrees of distinction between quite outstanding students who present with these strong A-levels. We are conscious always of the need also to find talent which may not be represented in A-level results. Here we come to the tension which is inherent in the second part of your question. There is sometimes an expectation that A-levels should be the sole measure; that it is unfair for a university to take a student who has two As and one B over a student who has three As; whereas the wise admissions tutor will be exploring more the background of the student and trying to get a sense of two things. One is their potential, which is not reflected in A-levels; the other is their prior attainment and their aptitude for the particular programme for which they present. Given all of that, to try to get some objective measure of consistency across the sector is quite difficult. We need to understand that students do have a wide choice of universities that they can apply for, and that being rejected by university A is not necessarily the end of a line; there are other universities.
Q28 Chairman: What is the solution? You are telling us the problem.
Professor Grant: What is the problem?
Q29 Dr Harris: I have already asked that question, that it is difficult to select, with the confidence of being fair from the university's perspective and the perspective of applicants, from lots of people with three As. I will come separately to the issue of identifying whether you can give a different approach, differential offers; but when three As is the offer generally and that the rare candidate with two As and a B, I accept, might exist, what are you doing to ensure that what you are trying works? Because interviews are controversial. Some would argue that they do go behind mere attainment or attainment that could be three scraped As or three brilliant As or A stars. How do you test that? What have you done? What work is going on to work out what is the best way of doing it?
Professor Grant: The answer is not a simple one. Because, for the reasons that I gave in my earlier answer, there is a huge difference within our institutions, let alone between our institutions. We have some disciplines in my own university where we are turning down up to 1,000 students with three As at A-level in one department every year. That is the degree of competition. With those it is quite difficult. You can do a correlation between A-level performance and ultimate degree performance, but it does not tell you a great deal because the sample is so small.
Q30 Dr Harris: They are all getting As as well. That is the point. Have you tried to identify any factor that is predictive from among all these people, all with predictions and getting three As?
Professor Grant: The second part of the question is again that it varies from discipline to discipline. In some disciplines it is not necessary to have a high level of prior attainment; in others, like chemistry or physics or mathematics, it is. You therefore need to measure strengths in particular disciplines as opposed to a broad-brush grouping of A-levels.
Chairman: Can we get another response? Professor Ebdon, from your point of view...?
Dr Harris: In fairness to Professor Ebdon, I do not know how many applications you get from people with three As. I have a separate set of questions for you in respect of the second part.
Q31 Chairman: I am just anxious to get a different view to Professor Grant's and the Russell Group, that is all; so perhaps, Professor Trainor, from the broader aspect?
Professor Trainor: I think one point is that, although as Professor Grant says, there are particular courses and particular universities that are heavily oversubscribed with people with three As, the percentage of people coming out of school who do have three As is a small minority of the total. It is growing, but it is still a minority. I am not saying this is a trivial problem, but the second part of the agenda that Dr Harris pointed out is actually, in quantitative terms, much the greater one.
Q32 Dr Harris: I agree. I just wanted to get that out of the way. Let me come to that, if I may. What can be done to ensure that we do not simply look at attainment in terms of letting people in but we look more closely at potential? There is a huge gap in attainment based on socio-economic group - massive. I do not believe, and I do not think the evidence suggests, that there is a gap in intelligence that matches the gap in attainment; and I understand the potential factors in intelligence as well as attainment, if I can use those broad terms. What is your solution to not relying strictly on attainment, i.e. predicted A-level scores or GCSE scores?
Professor Trainor: There is no single solution, is there? One thing we need to keep in mind on this is that, although it is very important that students get into the appropriate course, even more important is that they get into higher education - full stop. Widening participation is therefore the most urgent agenda. The question of where they end up, which particular university, though not a trivial question, is of secondary importance. On that important second issue, however, the most important thing is for universities to have the flexibility to take into account a variety of different kinds of indicators. Professor Grant was putting that forward with regard to people at the top end. Often there are a lot of pressures on universities, not least from the press, to be rather mechanistic in their approach to A-level scores; whereas in practice I think that every university in the land is trying to look at the total circumstances. In so far as we can get information from school reports, from evidence of what people have done in access programmes, in some cases in foundation years, in some instances - though it is very difficult in a large education system - from interviews, then those are taken into account. A great deal of effort goes on in universities and in the departments to try to balance up those factors.
Q33 Dr Harris: Why should each university have to invent the wheel here? If it is appropriate in the North East to say to someone from a very poor educational background that the offer made to them is going to be, say, five UCAS points lower than someone from a private school - and that works and it is shown that those two people get the same results overall on average - why should that not be the case for all universities? Because universities that do not do that, or do not do that as much, are clearly being in effect discriminatory in requiring the same UCAS score from people from vastly different educational backgrounds and therefore vastly different potential.
Professor Trainor: That would be a uniform, mechanistic system. It would risk trading one form of inflexibility for another. What we are trying to get, at the level of the applicant, is to assess their potential, not to create a simple sorting out of people according to their educational background.
Q34 Dr Harris: It is mechanistic to say equal pay for equal work of equal value. That is mechanistic. It is a requirement laid upon all universities, because although it is mechanistic the outcome is fair and it is shown that that is right - academically speaking, intellectually. Even though it is mechanistic and does not allow individual universities to do individual things, if it has been shown to be fair overall - and this is the biggest challenge, part of that is this issue as well as school performance - then should not all universities being doing it and be required to do it?
Professor Trainor: Your analogy, equal pay for equal value, is a very good principle. Applying that to particular circumstances, I am sure all institutions find, is often a complex matter. The principle all universities would adhere to is that we are trying to get the students with the potential to be able successfully to complete the course and to get the most benefit from it and contribute to it. My scepticism is that any single formula will attain that objective, given the huge variety of courses and circumstances of students that present themselves to us, not least in terms of age. Professor Ebdon pointed out earlier that a huge percentage of his students are coming not from the school population but from elsewhere. I do not think any single formula will ---
Chairman: I am sorry, I am going to have to stop you there. I want to bring Gordon in here with the FE links.
Q35 Mr Marsden: Professor Crossick, we know that - there is ample evidence for it - the future structure of higher education will be much more variegated; people will be coming in and out of higher education and that many of those people, far more than in the past, will be coming potentially from an FE background or from other backgrounds. You are the Warden of a college that sits on the edge of inner and outer London. What are you doing at Goldsmiths to make those links and those connections with FE colleges? What are members of the 1994 Group doing? What do you think, more broadly, some of the other groups represented here today should be doing?
Professor Crossick: I will answer on behalf of Goldsmiths because I know that best and indeed you have asked the question about Goldsmiths, though obviously I am really here on behalf of the 1994 Group. Goldsmiths is an interesting example because, as you have said, we are very much an inner city, research-strong university, which gives us some distinction within the 1994 Group, though there are of course others as well, like Queen Mary. In terms of FE colleges, recognising entirely what you are saying, one of the things that we are particularly proud of at Goldsmiths is our success in bringing in students who often are having a second chance at education. They are coming in their twenties. They are not in their thirties and forties, though some are; but students who have returned to education, possibly through FE colleges; others who are coming to us directly from FE colleges at the normal progression age. We have significant relationships with the principal FE college in our area. At Lewisham College we have progression agreements and we have access agreements with them; but we are building relationships with other FE colleges and, through Lifelong Learning networks in particular, we have some quite exciting relationships, which at the moment are working. I think that Lifelong Learning networks have proved a successful way of linking FE colleges to universities in precise areas of work. Is there more that we would like to be doing? Yes. We would like to develop that further, but I think that we are doing a lot at the moment. I would not dare to give advice to other universities outside the 1994 Group because, as we have tried to be pressing in our evidence today, the diversity of the UK higher education system is not one of its problems; it is one of its great successes.
Q36 Mr Marsden: That is a nice mantra and I appreciate the point. Could I ask you a very specific question then? In all this hive of activity that you are describing, both at Goldsmiths and the 1994 Group, what has the impact been on your figures for admissions?
Professor Crossick: What do you mean by "figures"? Figures for what?
Q37 Mr Marsden: In terms of admitting people from non-traditional school entry backgrounds.
Professor Crossick: From Goldsmiths' perspective, our record on that is pretty strong. It is strong amongst universities of Goldsmiths' kind. It is strong partly because of our location; strong because of our links; but also strong because of our subject mix. We recruit a lot of students into creative, performing arts subjects and the cultural subjects.
Q38 Mr Marsden: The statistics will bear that out, will they?
Professor Crossick: I do not have the statistics in front of me.
Professor Ebdon: The statistics show that 48 per cent of university admissions come from colleges. Obviously in a university like mine, and most Million+ subscribing universities, the vast majority of students come from further education college backgrounds. Most of us have strategic planning with colleges. For example, in Bedfordshire we have the Bedfordshire Federation of Higher and Further Education, which seeks strategically to plan the progression of students. We have a range of foundation degrees, as do many Million+ universities, which are delivered in further education colleges; university degrees delivered in further education colleges with the idea of promoting progression into university.
Q39 Mr Marsden: Professor Grant, I will ask you to comment briefly on this issue but can I also say that there is an elephant in the room here? We are all talking about the fairness of the access process on the people who apply, but one of the big issues of course is the people who do not apply. While I am aware of the fact that the Russell Group and indeed other university groups have done a significant amount of work with summer schools and everything else, the Sutton Trust and various other bodies show that you - I do not mean you particularly but universities in general - have to be far more proactive, going out there and identifying students at the age of 12 and 13 in schools that do not traditionally send people to the sorts of universities that you represent. What are you doing about that?
Professor Grant: The question is an absolutely valid one. Indeed, the work that we are doing - you will have seen a briefing on it and we can send further briefing - is extensive. However, it does not lead necessarily to applications to Russell Group universities. Other work that we do in liaison with schools and in liaison with colleges of further education often leads to students raising their aspirations to go to university, not necessarily to us. The elephant in the room is one that we completely accept. We cannot admit to Russell Group universities people who have not applied. We need to work on raising aspirations, but in a very complex landscape. If you look at the way in which educational opportunities develop across the broad socio-economic strata, you see that those in the lower socio-economic strata are not having their aspirations or their educational attainments raised at a sufficiently early level to get them into a schooling that will fit them to come to a research-intensive university. We work with schools, with teachers, with students, to try to raise aspirations and attainment. Some of us are in partnership with schools; some of us are proposing to sponsor city academies, to try and put university input back into this all-important part of education. You cannot solve decades of socio-economic inequality in this country by simply widening the gates of admissions to universities. This is a problem that we all own and we, I can assure you, are dead serious about how we should approach it.
Q40 Dr Iddon: I want to turn now to some questions on quality and standards. I have to tell you, gentlemen, that we have had some critical comments made about the Quality Assurance Agency. I think we could summarise it by saying that the comments point to the fact that the QAA is only interested in process and that it lacks independence and teeth. Indeed, the QAA itself says that it does not judge standards. How on earth are we to get consistency in quality and standards across the university sector, all of it, when we are getting comments like we have had in this inquiry? Is it not time that we review the QAA itself and ask the question: is it doing its job and should we be replacing it with a new body that does have teeth and does measure consistency across the sector?
Professor Trainor: This is a very important subject and one that all universities in the UK are very concerned about. We have a really strong stake in maintaining our standards, our good processes, and our reputation for having them. That matters to a significant degree, of course, in terms of our ability to retain interest from students applying from around the world, but it is also a crucial bit of our responsibility to our home students. I would query the assumption that the QAA lacks teeth. Any institution coming up to a periodic institutional audit - mine happens to be preparing for one and we will be putting in our self-assessment in two or three months' time and be having the visits in the autumn - I can assure you does not think that the QAA lacks teeth. We also see it as having a great deal of independence. Whatever the intricacies of the funding mechanism, it is a body that is, and quite rightly so, above any ability of an individual institution to influence what is going on. Also, I think that we need to keep in mind that it is not just the QAA which is looking after the question of standards and processes in UK higher education. In a sense, they are policing the whole system but each institution also is policing itself; so it is a combination of the two. An individual institution, just like the system as a whole, has a really strong interest in upholding its standards. We therefore have systems of periodic review of our programmes and, crucially, we have the external examiner system. I know that there has been a lot of criticism of that over the last six months or so. I think that it is unjustified. The external examiner system is a jewel in the crown of UK quality maintenance. It is something that in my native country, the USA, is unknown, except in the rarefied reaches of PhD examinations. We have a double system, double insurance, in the UK of internal scrutiny and external scrutiny, and the two join together in the external examiner system. I agree with you that we need to be looking at this in a critical way. That is one reason why Universities UK took an initiative last summer to tighten its input, or rather its receiving information from the QAA, about any general problems detected in the system; and of course the QAA, as I understand it, is looking critically at the way it is organised itself.
Q41 Dr Iddon: Can I stay with Professor Trainor and pose another question to you? In your evidence you say that "the level of understanding required between different universities is broadly equivalent". What evidence do you have to back up that statement so that everybody involved in the sector - from students and potential students, the taxpayer of course, across to the employer - knows that when they are getting a First from one university it is equivalent to a First from another university? Anecdotally, I have to tell you that people come to me all the time and say, "A First from that university is certainly not equivalent to a First from the other university". I do not want to name any, obviously. Why are we getting those comments?
Professor Trainor: I think the statement that you quoted, Dr Iddon, was "broadly equivalent". Universities differ in all kinds of ways, as you know. It is not simply a question of levels of perceived excellence; there is a tremendous difference in the balance of kinds of courses and the kinds of learning objectives that different universities ---
Q42 Chairman: Can you concentrate on Dr Iddon's question? You have said that it was "broadly equivalent" and we are questioning the validity of that statement.
Professor Trainor: Yes, I was coming to that. I agree; that is a very important point. There has been a lot of talk and publicity on this in the last six months or so, about degree classification, and so on. It is important to note that the patterns of degree classification have not changed all that much over the last ten years - only a six per cent rise in the percentage of Firsts and 2.1s. However, getting to your point of comparison among universities, there is a significant difference among universities in the extent to which they give Firsts and 2.1s. We are not saying that a First in ancient history from Poppleton is exactly the same thing as a First in tourism management from Poppleton Metropolitan; what we are saying is that, roughly, both are upholding the standards that fulfil the purposes of their courses.
Q43 Dr Iddon: Perhaps I could come back to the criticisms of the QAA and ask the other three panel members to comment on the first question that I posed to you, Professor Trainor.
Professor Grant: The issue of the QAA is that this is an organisation that primarily looks at processes and institutional structures, to try to ensure that these are well-run institutions, to try to ensure that what they do is dedicated to improving and enhancing the quality of teaching and that there is consistency in examining. However, we should not confuse that mission with providing us with a basis for an accurate comparison of a First from Uttoxeter and a First from Oxford. That is not its job. It does not do that; it cannot secure that. It is absolutely fundamental to understanding the diversity of the nature of our institutions to realise that that comparison is too simplistic. The only way you will ever get there, as far as I can see, is by prescribing a national curriculum and having national examinations - which can kiss goodbye to the diversity and the dynamism of British higher education.
Q44 Dr Iddon: Or we could abandon the classification system altogether and measure the students' ability in some other way, like a percentage mark.
Professor Crossick: I agree entirely with what Professor Grant has said and I do not think that the QAA is the answer to this. However, Dr Iddon's point is a very important one. It may be that we are pursuing the wrong target in trying to unravel precisely what a First means here and what a First means there, as if, if we got that right, that would provide all the information that those who want the answers to the question would need. I think - this is a personal view, not the position of the 1994 Group but I know that a lot of the 1994 Group institutions agree with this - we ought to be moving to something like the higher education achievement report, which Professor Burgess's group is working on, in which we actually provide as the outcome of a student's time at university a much broader picture of their achievement in a whole range of ways while at university. Not least how they did on different courses and different programmes but also lots of other activities, so that employers and other public interests, potential users of that student's skills, can see the breadth of it. A First or a 2.1 does not really tell us very much. Some would like to keep that; some would like to see that replaced; but I think that most of us agree that something much broader, of the kind you have described, is what is needed.
Professor Ebdon: To underline that, I think that you are quite right in suggesting that the classification system is outmoded. It always used to strike me as a chemist that I would be telling my students not to average down averageable, and then I would walk into an examination board and do exactly that! As a chemist, I know very well that some people have very strong practical skills; others are stronger theoretically. I would like to be able to identify that, and I think that the higher education achievement record will enable us to do that. I am therefore strongly in favour of that. Can I also say about the QAA that the key thing about UK universities is that they are self-regulating, and I do not think that this Committee should have concerns that that self-regulation has broken down. The role of the QAA is to make sure that self-regulation is working properly. Self-regulating systems are always better than policed systems, particularly when you are dealing with highly intelligent people, because they will find a way round any policed system; but ask people to self-regulate and you will get a much better form of regulation.
Q45 Dr Gibson: Would it concentrate the mind if we looked every ten years or so at a university's right to award degrees? They are given the right to award degrees and it is a job for life, as it were. Is that something that you might welcome? Yes or no would do.
Professor Trainor: No.
Professor Grant: No.
Professor Ebdon: No.
Professor Crossick: No.
Q46 Chairman: The speed at which you answered that has been noted!
Professor Trainor: There are such systems, as Dr Gibson will know, in use elsewhere in the world. I do not think that they have any more teeth than the institutional audit system that we have here because de facto, periodically, getting a good result from the institutional audit is prerequisite for the university carrying on with its reputation in good order. Even if it were allowed to continue in some form, without the confidence of the QAA's institutional audit it would be gravely weakened.
Q47 Dr Gibson: When it comes to the student time that is spent, HEPI, a very august body of whom you will have heard, have done a very fulsome study of the time that students spend. I come from a background where scientists spent more time doing a piece of work than the art students, who were in the Students' Union passing resolutions and becoming politicos, and all that kind of stuff. Thank goodness! We could never get the scientists interested. When you look at biological sciences, I can give you quotes from HEPI that show you that in one place a student will do 18 hours a week and in another they will do 35 hours a week. Does that worry you at all? You kind of answered it earlier, but does it worry you that students can see or hear from the grapevine that you can get a degree for less time spent on it and that you can do other things? Nowadays you have to get a job, of course. You can do a real job as well as be a student.
Professor Ebdon: The key thing that a lecturer does is to motivate students, and to motivate students to work. Therefore, the broad figures do not worry me because they do not actually go down to the complexity of how we do things. You will be pleased to know, Ian, that at the University of Bedfordshire we have recently completely restyled the way in which we teach business. I have told them that they have discovered practical work, which scientists knew years ago. We teach them in a simulated business environment.
Q48 Dr Gibson: At least they have to spend a certain amount of time. If you are a football coach you know you have to take people for a certain number of hours. Why not with students? That there is a set number of hours that you can agree with each other that they need to do?
Professor Ebdon: Footballers volunteer for extra training when they think they need it as well. The point I am making is that if you are motivated to break into the first team, then you will be motivated to work hard.
Professor Crossick: There is an assumption that the learning goes on only when a student is in the presence of an academic, and the ways in which university education has been transformed in recent years has meant that is not the case. In all our institutions, students do an awful lot of learning, not on their own but in groups together, doing group projects and working together. I think that contact hours, while it has some relevance and importance, actually is a chimera.
Chairman: Can I stop you here, Professor Crossick, because the question that Dr Gibson asked was about the HEPI study, which did not just look at contact hours but it looked at everything involved.
Q49 Dr Gibson: Are you saying it is a bunch of bilg?
Professor Crossick: I would never dream of saying that what Bahram Bekhradnia has done is a bunch of bilge. Of course not. What I would say about it is that it takes contact hours as a proxy for the quality of an education in a way that I do not think is correct.
Q50 Dr Gibson: So it is not a measure that you would consider at all?
Professor Crossick: On its own, no.
Q51 Dr Gibson: Others would agree with that, presumably?
Professor Grant: Yes, I think you also have to distinguish between disciplines. Amongst contact hours will be some of the physical sciences, medicine and veterinary sciences, where you would have laboratory sessions, which would of course increase the volume of contact hours; whereas in arts and humanities the tradition has been much more one of lone scholarship.
Q52 Dr Harris: This study was for the same subject, like for like, and they were two similar universities. The figures we have are 18 hours and 26 hours.
Professor Crossick: What one has to ask then, as I said, is to look at the totality of the ways in which those students are learning in that subject at that university. We can impose the same structure of learning, the same curriculum, in every university ---
Q53 Dr Gibson: Each university is happy with that situation. Who is going to compare them and say, "At the University of Bedfordshire you have to do 36 hours but at King's College you only have to do 18"? Not because you are brighter or whatever but because of less hours ---
Professor Crossick: Why does that comparison need to be...? No, not done in less hours of contact. I have tried to suggest that there is so much more than just contact.
Q54 Dr Gibson: So they are writing essays, all the other time?
Professor Crossick: No. Mr Marsden is a passionate supporter of history in universities; he knows how much time history students spend in libraries, doing work.
Chairman: Could you use the actual figures that we have in a particular subject?
Q55 Dr Gibson: Yes. In biological sciences, students at Goldsmiths get 18.7 hours per week, while those at UCL do 26.1.
Professor Crossick: I have to say that we do not have a degree in biological sciences or a department of biological sciences at Goldsmiths. This is referring to something else.
Q56 Dr Harris: But apart from that?
Professor Crossick: Apart from that, this sounds like ---
Q57 Dr Gibson: They have got it wrong again, have they?
Professor Crossick: I do not know what was being referred to there, but we do not do biological sciences at Goldsmiths.
Q58 Dr Harris: Is there any data that would worry you on any of the questions we are asking? Because every time we have asked a question you have said, "Everything is fine. Universities are doing their best. Each university is doing its own thing in its own way and we don't see anything we are doing is wrong".
Professor Ebdon: The data that worries me most is not the data that you expressed earlier about the 2,000 to 3,000 students with good A-level results who may end up with a different university than the one they first aspired to go to, but the 100,000 students a year who come into the UCAS system, who are qualified to go to university and do not go to university. That worries me. I think that we have presented ourselves in a complex way. People find it difficult to penetrate into universities; we are not sufficiently open and welcoming to them. I think that we have recognised that and we are trying to do a number of things; in particular, the extra energy that we are now putting into links with schools and colleges is important and overdue.
Q59 Dr Gibson: Do you think academics are trained sufficiently in how to mark a final exam paper?
Professor Trainor: There is a lot more training of academics in all the skills of the teaching role than there was a generation ago.
Q60 Dr Gibson: Could you tell the difference between a 68 per cent and a 70 per cent, given that you never give anybody 100 per cent that I know of? You might in mathematics or something where there is no other answer. I think that I once awarded somebody 100 per cent and I always suspected that he had read the proceedings of the National Academy the week before and had got the answer! Mostly you know, you are taught, or it just happens and you do not go above 75 per cent. Is that true?
Professor Trainor: External examiners and individual universities are always trying to encourage people to use the full range of ---
Q61 Dr Gibson: Let us talk about external examiners. They come in on a Sunday; they go away on the Tuesday or Wednesday, whatever, and in some universities they may last longer. They do not read every paper for a start; some of them conduct interviews with students and invariably the classification from the paper mark goes up after they have met the student. They say, "Actually I think they are first-class". "Would you like to do a PhD with me?" I have heard said occasionally. All these things go on in that kind of environment. Do you recognise that?
Professor Trainor: I do not really. There may be an occasional abuse, I do not know. In my time of teaching in universities I never knew of a case of an individual student meeting an external examiner before the result was promulgated. However, my point would be that it is not just external examiners; there is a huge amount of double-marking that goes on and then the usual practice is for further borderline candidates to go to external examiners; and I think it is entirely appropriate. We also have to keep in mind that, for the last 20 years or so, external examiners have been used by universities to look at the overall programmes, to comment on changes to the curriculum as well as to monitor the overall rates of attainment.
Q62 Dr Gibson: You do not think that the external examiner system is an old boy/old girl network? I have been an external examiner. "I'll do yours if you do mine" - and you got 50 quid for it in my day.
Professor Trainor: You are very poorly paid. It is a labour of love. People do it to uphold the standards of the system. The external examiner is a very powerful figure in UK higher education. I think that we do a discredit to the country's higher education system if we ignore that.
Q63 Dr Gibson: Why do we not have a register of externals and a price?
Professor Trainor: We have a system of training external examiners, which is attaining the same objective by a different route.
Chairman: It would have been wonderful just to hear that there was some slight flaw in the higher education system this morning. It is quite remarkable. I want to try to leave the last word to my colleague Ian Stewart on one area that you might feel is flawed.
Q64 Ian Stewart: Before I ask the questions, Chairman, I have to declare an interest, in that I am registered currently at Manchester University as a part-time PhD student, self-funded. The reason that we want to ask these questions is to see whether there is a different approach, or any difference in approach, between the old and the new universities towards funding for part-time students. Can you please put yourself in the position of students in answering these questions as best you can, rather than as a university? How would you justify the different amounts of institutional bursary that the same student with the same needs can receive from different universities? Are you concerned that students in those universities that can only provide the smallest bursaries will suffer academically because they have to take more paid employment? Would a national bursary scheme, for example, be the right answer if we are interested in increased affordability and better outcomes for poorer students?
Professor Ebdon: The answer is yes, we should have a national bursary system. It is completely preposterous that students get a size of bursary not depending on their need but depending on which university they go to. It is as logical as getting a different-sized pension depending on which post office you go to.
Professor Grant: Can I disagree completely, for two reasons? One, there is a national bursary scheme. If you are going to have a national bursary scheme you should run it nationally. What I disagree entirely with was the report from HEPI, which I think was very disappointing in its analysis and in its conclusions, which suggested that the way of rectifying the inequality of bursaries was to remove money from those institutions who were paying higher bursaries and to transfer it to those institutions who were paying lower bursaries. In other words, I would need to explain to students coming to UCL that part of their fee being paid to UCL would be paid to support education at UCL and part would be paid to support education elsewhere. Have a national bursary scheme - yes. Do not have a cross-transfer which runs completely contrary to the whole point of introducing variable tuition fees.
Professor Crossick: I agree entirely with Professor Grant's position on this. I do think that we would be confusing the two. The Government decided not to cover the costs of this through taxation; they decided to do it through fees associated with bursaries. A national bursary scheme could be created. It would be something that came out of taxation and we would be perfectly happy to consider that. One point about the further weakness of a national bursary scheme, just to develop what Professor Grant said, is that it would actually confuse the funding contract. Students come to a university, pay their fees to an institution, and for those fees then to be given to another institution would undermine the relationship. I think that relationship would be particularly undermined in the eyes of parents of 18 and 19-year-olds coming to university, who would ask what on earth is happening.
Q65 Ian Stewart: Professor Trainor, could you also pass comment about whether you think that part-time students get a raw deal? What sort of improvements could be made to assist them, and should the review of fees cover part-time students as well as full-time students?
Professor Trainor: The position of Universities UK is that we should be seriously considering more generous funding for part-time students. If the pot remains the same, of course, that is an acute difficulty because, as you know, we have a large number of full-time students in the system and I do not think that anybody is suggesting - certainly not your line of questioning - that they are oversupplied with funds. However, there is a good case to look more sympathetically at funding for part-time students. As for the issue of national bursaries, on the very few issues on which members of Universities UK disagree I do not pretend to put forward a position that assumes that that is not the case. However, it is important to remember - and this is implied in part by Professor Crossick's statement - that we ended up with a system of bursaries because of a desire to get badly-needed additional money into the university system. The bursaries were a way to try to keep the fees, which were to lead to the additional money, from impeding fair access. I think that the underlying difficulty, of getting adequate money for learning and teaching into a system where the recurrent funding and the infrastructure funding is much smaller than in our major competitors, is something that we should be looking at alongside the issue that you raise, Mr Stewart, about the fairness of the bursary system.
Dr Harris: Is it fair to point out to Professor Grant that it is transferring money from where there are few poor students to universities where there are more poor students? It is not generous versus ungenerous; it is the numbers, and that is what the HEPI report shows.
Q66 Chairman: It is an issue which we will clearly return to. I am sorry that it has been a very tight session this morning. The purpose of it was to try to raise those issues which we need to spend more time on. The trouble is that every one of them comes into that category by the end of the session. Can I thank you all very much indeed for your evidence this morning?
Professor Grant: Chairman, you have set yourself a very broad frame of reference for this inquiry. We all stand ready to assist you with further information if we can, and we look forward to a rigorous report.
Professor Trainor: And without a hint of complacency, Chairman, because we want to improve the system constantly.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
Memoranda submitted by GuildHE, the 157 Group and University Alliance
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor David Baker, Chair of GuildHE; Ms Pat Bacon, Principal and CEO, St Helen's College, representing the 157 Group; and Professor John Craven, Vice-Chancellor, University of Portsmouth, representing University Alliance, gave evidence.
Q67 Chairman: Can I welcome our second panel before us today and indeed thank you all, Professor David Baker, the Chair of the Guild of Higher Education, Pat Bacon, representing the 157 Group and Professor John Craven, representing the University Alliance. Thank you very much indeed for coming this morning and for sitting through the earlier session. I am sure that you enjoyed some of those exchanges! I wonder if I could start with you, Professor Craven, and ask you this question. Times Higher Education did publish a survey and Loughborough came out top. What do you feel matters most to students when they attend a college or university?
Professor Craven: I think that one should also take into account the National Student Survey, which of course is a much bigger sample than the Times Higher survey was, but I think that the same question is valid. My view is that students choose universities - and from our research certainly in my institution - first because they think the course is the right course for them; second, because they like the location; when they come and see it, they feel at home in the institution; third, because they expect that with their pre-qualifications - and I would want to say in response to some of the things said in the last session that not every student by any means comes in with A-levels, we take in students with all sorts of qualifications - but they will want to know that they are going to get the support that they will want, given their background and perhaps given their likely grades or whatever it is. They take those three things into account, therefore. Our experience of student satisfaction is that if they feel they have got that right - in other words, that the course does deliver what they were expecting and the place is a nice place to be - then they will be satisfied. They do have expectations when they come, therefore, and we normally seem to fulfil them. The National Student Survey does say that a great many students are satisfied. I would therefore say that that is what drives student satisfaction.
Q68 Chairman: Pat, your organisation represents a significant number of high-quality further education colleges. We heard in the previous session that significant numbers of students, particularly to the Million+ universities, are coming directly from further education; but are you concerned that the prospectus does not include clear information about the number of hours taught, who will actually be doing the teaching - those other facilities which you would get with any other product that you were purchasing anywhere else in the system? Does that concern you or not?
Ms Bacon: I think that it is an issue and, in the end, it is also an issue that students themselves need to be asked, because clearly they are the ones who are using the information to make the decision. It is the case that within the 157 Group quite a number of us are directly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council and therefore are delivering a range of higher education provision. Our contact with students will be very personal. We often know them. If we do not know them, we will certainly interview them. We will give them the opportunity to come and see exactly what they are going to get. I sense that there is a growing issue about how much teaching, the quality of teaching and so on, throughout the higher education world. I therefore had a great deal of interest in the line of questioning you were pursuing.
Q69 Chairman: Professor Baker, do you share that concern that we are not transparent about what is the actual offer we are giving to students, in terms of the product which is going to be delivered in a particular institution? Does that concern you?
Professor Baker: I think that there are some concerns. One of the points that GuildHE has made in its submission is about information, advice and guidance at schools. You have mentioned the prospectus. The prospectus is only one element of the information that is given - the hard-copy prospectus. There is very much the website, for example. There are very much open days, and other information that is given both in printed form or other media, and also face to face. Institutions that are in the membership of GuildHE have very close relationships with schools and colleges, the FE sector or the secondary sector. We very much have the kind of relationship that encourages people onto campus much earlier than the 17 and 18.
Q70 Chairman: I understand what you are saying but I do not know how you advise students. When you compare two particular universities with the same course, you do not know how many hours are taught on each; you do not know who will be actually teaching it; you do not know how much work students will have to do; you often do not know about assessment procedures; you do not know that, because it is a high-quality research university, you will actually get a leading academic rather than a post-doc or indeed a postgraduate student teaching you. How on earth can you get careers departments in schools to give that sort of advice to students when there is no evidence there?
Professor Baker: I think that there are good links between universities of all kinds and careers departments. One thing that was not mentioned in the earlier discussion which I would want to bring to the fore is SPA - Supporting Professionalism in Admissions - where there are very extensive guidelines that are widely followed in the sector, across all admission groups, with regard to good practice in admissions, and it relates inter alia to things like the transparency of the process. I would also go back to the point about the prospectus as one element of the information given. Before students come to institutions to study, and as they are there, in the vast majority of cases there is significant information given about a description of what they will be taught, by whom, for how many hours; programme descriptors, module descriptors, and so on.
Q71 Chairman: Can I come back to you briefly, Pat, before handing over to my colleague Gordon Marsden? Those of us who worked in mainstream education - I was a head for 20 years before I came into the House and I have a good knowledge of FE - know that if I wanted to employ staff in my school or you, as a college principal, wanted to employ staff in FE, unless they had the appropriate qualifications to teach they cannot do it. Yet the universities can have people who are totally untrained as far as teaching students, who are then paid for that privilege. Is that right?
Ms Bacon: I think that teachers should be professionally qualified, and I am a professionally qualified teacher myself.
Q72 Chairman: Does that apply in higher education? Should it apply?
Ms Bacon: Certainly the teachers who work for me who are delivering higher education - and I am sure that is the case throughout FE where it is delivering HE - will be professionally qualified teachers. In further education we have a very strong culture around pedagogy. We have a very strong culture around quality of teaching and learning. I think that goes back over many years. We may well come back to the QAA, but if you look at recent QAA reviews, while they were still very much focusing on teaching and learning, generally reviews of HE and FE have come out very well indeed. Because the two things we do really well are that we teach well and deliver learning well, and we support students very well; so I think there is a great deal of focus on that.
Q73 Dr Gibson: People in higher education, universities, are recruited because of their research; the number of papers they have; how they are going to figure in the RAE. "Yes, you can do a bit of teaching but don't take it too seriously. The real way of judging a university is by research." I can hear vice-chancellors saying that.
Ms Bacon: I am slightly uncomfortable about that. What I would say about further education is that we do not always necessarily take people in who are qualified on day one. It is incredibly important that we have people who come out of industry. Many of my staff are still practising in terms of whatever is their particular expertise; but we train them and they become qualified teachers. I know that is enshrined in law now, but it was something we had as a policy before that.
Professor Craven: It is a bit of a caricature of universities that I do not recognise and I do not think applies across the institutions that I represent. In my university we require anybody who comes into teaching who has not previously had such training at least to take a certificate. Many of them go on to further pedagogical research. We do require people to be trained in teaching. As has just been said, they do not come in with it, because there is not a methodology perhaps for doing it before we recruit them; but within the early time with us they are required to do that. I would strongly reject the idea that we do not take seriously the training of people to teach.
Q74 Dr Gibson: Do they do serious research as well?
Professor Craven: Of course they do, yes.
Q75 Dr Gibson: They publish in high-flying journals?
Professor Craven: Yes. If you look in the Research Assessment Exercise you will see that Alliance universities have a lot of high-quality research.
Q76 Chairman: With respect, you do not know that, do you?
Professor Craven: Do not know what?
Q77 Chairman: You do not know whether all university lecturers are qualified to teach?
Professor Craven: I would know that about my institution and I would guess that other vice-chancellors would say the same. I am not sure what it is you think I do not know.
Q78 Dr Gibson: David could answer this. We were colleagues once.
Professor Baker: Indeed. I have to agree with Professor Craven that I think your description of the academic who does research and a bit of teaching if they have to is an old-fashioned and out-of-date one. That is not the case across the sector. Speaking particularly for GuildHE institutions, as with Alliance members and as with Professor Craven's institution, we require colleagues who are appointed to undergo training and some kind of certification process. We also strongly encourage, if not require, membership of the Higher Education Academy. There is therefore a very strong emphasis on being prepared for and qualified to teach. It is not quite the same as being a schoolteacher, but there is a very strong emphasis on that. Bear in mind, of course, that in institutions like mine you are dealing with professional and vocational subjects in many respects. Those people who have come in probably already have some kind of appropriate qualification anyway. In terms of research, we are not going to perform very strongly in the Research Assessment Exercise, though we did do so in terms of small pockets of excellence in our institutions; but, again, we do require scholarly and research activity to be undertaken in our institutions as part of underpinning teaching at university-level education.
Q79 Mr Marsden: Pat, I wonder if I could come back to you. You heard in the previous session the discussion about the relationship between FE, FE networks and higher education; but, from the point of view of a student doing HE in FE, is that student getting a fair crack of the whip compared to someone doing HE in HE? I do not ask that from the standpoint necessarily of is the FE college itself not providing as good facilities; I ask it more from the standpoint of when that student leaves or wants to transfer perhaps, as university courses become more portable, are they disadvantaged compared to people who do an HE course in a traditional HE institution?
Ms Bacon: I think that there are a number of issues in that question. If I take the example of the foundation degree, for example - and we deliver, as do many 157 and Association of Colleges members - this was very much designed with an articulated progression route. That was the concept behind it. We have certainly found very good progression from the foundation degree. I know that it is a qualification in its own right and often gets overlooked, but none the less there is a good take-up of people going on. We have had ex-students of ours who did the foundation degree coming out of the university of their choice, in some case with First-Class Honours; so there is some real evidence. I do not think that they are disadvantaged in that sense, therefore. I was inevitably thinking also about the resources issue. The student survey reflected very positively on students following HE in FE. Where we think the relationship works best with our universities - and I am thinking here of the validating universities that we use for our provision - it is where there really is an academic community. In the end, therefore, it is not just about going through a process of validation; it is also about joint professional development and about staff working together. Where the relationships are good, I think that there are some real positives. In the end, it is the student who benefits because they can be confident of a local experience, which is often what attracts them sometimes in a familiar environment, but with the knowledge that they can access university resources; that they can be confident about the quality and level of the experience; and, with the progression, generally the experience has been good so far.
Q80 Mr Marsden: It remains the case, though, does it not, that in many cases, not all, progression from FE qualifications - and I am thinking particularly for adult learners returning after a long period out, where they may have either no qualifications or what are regarded as outdated qualifications - their ability to make that progression is very much dependent upon the individual relationships between the college at which they are and the HE institution they are trying to get into? We still do not have a proper, national accreditation, portability scheme, despite good efforts and various reports. Is that not the case?
Ms Bacon: I think that there are a number of issues about progression into higher education, wherever it is delivered. In fact, I have just been reading, and I would commend to the Committee, the Campaign for Learning. It is an excellent piece of work, I have to say, and it is incredibly well researched; but one of the statistics that really stood out for me was that three-quarters of the funding in 2010-2011 will go on full-time 17 to 20-year-olds. While instinctively, in preparing for this, I would have been thinking about the adult student, I think that they pick up extremely powerfully the question of the young student who may well be looking for part-time progression and for whom, by and large, the finances, the support and the transition are not there. It is a really powerful piece of work.
Q81 Mr Marsden: You have pinched one of my later questions, though the Chairman will be very grateful! Can I ask John - because you were nodding - an add-on question to one I have asked of Pat? In the previous session you heard - I will not say a "ding-dong" - the discussion about the balance between teaching, research, and all the rest of it. It is the case, is it not, that, whether you regard teaching or research as being paramount, there is a lot of stuff that goes on, particularly from younger academics, that does not necessarily fit into either category but certainly fits into the outreach areas and the links with FE colleges and local schools that we are talking about? Do we do enough to reward or support them?
Professor Craven: In both of those areas. One of your colleagues said something about "It doesn't seem as though there are any negative issues coming out", but I think that there is a lot of work still to be done, both in terms of the networks of higher education and further education colleges, to promote progression. I worry about short-term initiatives and short-term funding for that. It is a long-term process that requires the building of trust and the building of better relationships there. Regarding your point about outreach into the community, one of the things that is very important in institutions like my own is to say to staff that often the Research Assessment Exercise is a rather narrow definition of what counts as research, what counts as contribution into the prosperity of local businesses, public sector organisations, whatever it might be, and making available the undoubted expertise of my staff - and, increasingly, students - out into the community is important. You ask whether it is properly rewarded. I think that there is still a lot of work to be done on the career progression of academics. As you say, many of them are younger and so they care about this rather a lot - about how their careers can progress. Perhaps they are doing hugely valuable work, but it may not - depending on what happens to research assessment in the future - be picked up by those sorts of metrics. Yes, I agree with you. I think that we have a lot of work to do. There are things on which we need to work as a sector, but also we have to talk with our staff, colleagues, and so on. Yes, that is a hugely important point.
Q82 Mr Marsden: I would like to come on to you, David, if I may. You said in your written evidence, and in a way it picks up on the previous question, that your institutions "have a proven track record in widening participation" and that "diversity in the higher education ecology" - which is an interesting phrase - "can too easily be honoured in principle in government policies while being overlooked in practice". I just wondered what your institutions are doing that other higher education institutions are not, and what is being overlooked - if I can put it that way.
Professor Baker: In terms of widening participation we are particularly strong on community engagement, not just with the schools and the FE colleges in the region but with local community organisations, public and private partnerships. I think to a large extent that comes from the heritage of GuildHE-type institutions. Most of us were founded in the 1840s or 1850s; we have always had very strong teacher education; we have had very strong links with professions; and we are very much based in our communities. We do not recruit nationally; we recruit locally, sub-regionally or regionally. That does place a very strong emphasis on building up community relations. Therefore, in my own institution for example, we do not wait until students are 17 or 18 to think about encouraging them to look at the campus; we work with people at primary school level, because the vast majority of our students are first-to-go-to-university students. One of the things you therefore have to do is to break down what might be seen as intimidatory barriers to encouraging them into higher education. It is working with the whole community; it is working with the whole family.
Q83 Mr Marsden: Can I just cut across you there? That is immensely valuable but, unless I am wrong, you do not get any formal or informal recognition either from HEFCE or the Government for that, do you - certainly not in financial terms?
Professor Baker: There has been a widening participation premium that has been added.
Q84 Mr Marsden: That would apply to primary as well, would it?
Professor Baker: To primary...?
Q85 Mr Marsden: You were talking about your engagement at primary level.
Professor Baker: No. We have in the past had special funding, for example for summer schools for primary children and so on; but I was thinking about the widening participation premium that we get from HEFCE when the students arrive. What I am saying is that it is a long build-up. It is something that you start several years before the student actually arrives in higher education.
Q86 Mr Marsden: That brings me rather seamlessly to the issue of the Aimhigher initiative. I would like to ask for your views on that. In your evidence, Pat, the 157 Group was a bit critical of the initiative. You said, "It lacks the drive, innovation and crucially the ability to connect with the very young people from disadvantaged communities that it seeks to target". Anecdotes are always dangerous, but my experience in my own neck of the woods in Blackpool is that the Aimhigher programme is working quite well, in an area where we have had a poor take-up in the past; but obviously yours is a broader perspective. What is your essential critique of it and what improvements do you think should be made?
Ms Bacon: I must admit that I think in my own area it has also been powerful. You ask for a critique. In Merseyside it came out of the Excellence Challenge, and one of the great strengths of that, particularly from a further education perspective, was not just the focus on the one end, on the widening participation - because I would argue that has been our focus for many years - but also on the gifted and talented. If there was a weakness in some parts of the FE sector, maybe we were always a bit focused on what people did not have and therefore what they needed extra, rather than perhaps raising people's aspirations. In an area like mine, where participation in HE is relatively limited, then the aspirational part is very important indeed. I think that there has been quite a strong focus on aspiration. There is perhaps not enough of a focus on some of the curriculum issues about the ladder through. Again, in Merseyside I know that they have done some very interesting work ---
Q87 Mr Marsden: Do you mean by that making sure that schoolchildren take courses that then steer them to appropriate degree levels for them?
Ms Bacon: Yes, there is an information, advice and guidance strand to that, which is absolutely critical - and your questioning has already touched on it and has raised the issues very well around that - but the other strand is that sometimes people do not necessarily always have, at any age, the skills in totality that will help them really succeed. There has been a big focus on aspiration and I am not convinced that there has been quite so much focus on some aspects of that.
Q88 Mr Marsden: John, you are the Vice-Chancellor at Portsmouth. You are on the receiving end of the products of this process. What is your take on where it is going?
Professor Craven: We are also participants in the Aimhigher programme, which has closely involved universities. One observation that I would make on it from my particular area in Hampshire is that we have 11 to 16 and then all students go on either to a sixth-form college or an FE college or some mixed version. One of the challenges, not only for Aimhigher but for our own aspiration-raising activities - as we work very hard even from primary school level, but certainly in the early years of secondary school, to raise the aspirations - is then the students have to cope with the discontinuity, which is quite disruptive to the process of our engagement with them because they are focusing on something else, which is the discontinuity in their education. I think that Aimhigher has had some success in our area in enabling that transition to be less disruptive; but there is a lot of work to be done. As I said earlier, I think that all the aspiration-raising, widening-participation activities, which I certainly welcome and my Alliance colleagues certainly welcome, which have grown over the last ten to 15 years, need to be sustained. It is important to get the first person from a family, the first generation, into higher education and then you have solved a lot of the problems - if I can put it that way. However, it will take some time to crack that first participant from many disadvantaged families, and the whole process - Aimhigher or some other initiative - does need to continue for quite some time. It is not a quick fix.
Q89 Dr Harris: Ms Bacon, from the perspective as the head of an FE college, what is your reaction to the HEFCE study published in 2005 that said that students from state schools and colleges like yours "appeared to do consistently better (at university) than students from independent schools, when compared on a like-for-like basis"? Do you think, therefore, that it is reasonable that extra credit should be given to applicants from state schools and FE colleges over independent school students, who are otherwise the same in terms of their attainment?
Ms Bacon: The issue at the back of that clearly is one of value added, because presumably this is also about how far people have travelled, given their backgrounds and so on. If we are serious about widening participation - and as a college that was judged by Ofsted as "outstanding" in terms of social inclusion, it is absolutely part of our mission and vision - for an area of relative social and economic deprivation like the one in which I operate, then education has to be the route out. So, yes, I am concerned, because we have to find a way of teasing out the brightest and best of our communities. In a way, that is where that report is so critical, because there are an awful lot of young people who are not at Level 3 by the time they are 18; therefore, the opportunity for part-time study, for picking up higher education further on, is important. One of the things the report is calling for, which we would certainly wish to see, is a review of Level 3 provision as well.
Q90 Dr Harris: I need just to focus on this question. Professor Craven, the corollary of that is that if you treat students from independent schools and state schools the same, if they are otherwise the same and you do not factor that in, and essentially you give equal offers to equal numbers, if you like, those independent school people will do less well - not badly, but less well - than the others. Do you think that is a strong argument for putting a premium on educational background?
Professor Craven: I think that the admission process should take note of educational background. I have no difficulty with that at all.
Q91 Chairman: That was not the question. It was not "take note of".
Professor Craven: No, and you are asking whether we should make different offers to people from different backgrounds. Is that it?
Q92 Dr Harris: Consistent with the fact that they do better, even if they are slightly less ---
Professor Craven: I would say that there is quite a lot of that already happening within institutions like mine and, yes, I support it.
Q93 Dr Harris: My follow-up is, if that is right to do, should not all institutions do it? Otherwise, independent schools may complain that they are being discriminated against by a university that is proud of the fact that it is doing the fair thing, the right thing, by having that as one of the factors. Secondly, would it not help if all students and schools knew, so that they were not deterred and they felt that they were getting fair recognition? They do not know that if it is sporadic and buried.
Professor Craven: I am certainly in favour of clarity of information, clarity of what we publicise about our admissions policy. That, I think, is absolutely vital. I do not think that it is for me to say what all universities should do. We are autonomous institutions and I would not wish what we do to be dictated from above; but there are good practice guidelines, which I would support.
Q94 Dr Harris: So it should not be dictated from above that they all do the right thing in terms of fairness; because, even if it means that you do not do the right thing and continue more unfair practices - not totally unfair but less fair - that is a price you pay for autonomy, because different flowers must bloom?
Professor Craven: I think that the price you pay for autonomy is that we do not have a single view in this country of what the right thing is, which is imposed on everybody. I have told you what I think the right thing is and I would like to see other universities do it; but I think that is a separate question from anybody having the right to impose it. That is politics, not higher education. That is what I think individual freedom and autonomy means.
Q95 Dr Harris: I just wish I could have explored that more with the other panel. My last question is about how we encourage people to apply; because you have to be in it to win it. Part of the problem is that there is not the aspiration.
Professor Craven: Correct.
Q96 Dr Harris: I wondered if you, Ms Bacon, thought it was time for radical measures, such as the best students from the least-performing schools being guaranteed a place in higher education; that there will be a separate funding pot to do that, and it is piloted to make sure that they are not dropping out but are coping, and to see how they do. It would not have to be large numbers, but that would say to every student in a school, "If you do well enough, you can be assured of a place".
Ms Bacon: There is also something that has to be explored about whether it really is that people are choosing not to go, or whether - I come back to my earlier point - if the choice is predominantly seen to be about full-time or nothing, then there is a huge deterrent.
Q97 Dr Harris: I am not saying it is the be-all or end-all, but for those students who think, "I'll get a job. I probably wouldn't get in, because my family hasn't been" - if they knew they had a guaranteed place if they were in the top five per cent in any institution.
Ms Bacon: I think that is interesting to explore. I am very pleased to say that we have just been given the go-ahead as a college - and we are certainly not the only one - to sponsor an academy. We are working with a local university partner on that. Clearly the whole drive is around a school that is seriously underperforming in our area. I think that there is a fantastic opportunity to start to explore what I suppose in my world we tend to call "compacts" - those kinds of access arrangements where, as you say, they can be very motivational and lead to something. However, there clearly has to be a university partner in that.
Q98 Dr Harris: Finally, to the university partner then, Professor Craven. Let us say you are getting only two per cent of students from Portsmouth Comprehensive into your university, and they said, "Will you take the next three per cent? We will give you specific funded places, and we will monitor to see how they do and provide you with resources for support", would you welcome that? Would you be a willing participant or would you see that as social engineering?
Professor Craven: I would welcome it. Whether or not I see it as social engineering does not really matter, because one might think that was good or bad. I would welcome it. The operation of it is tempered by the fact that Portsmouth comprehensives stop at 16. The ones who are successful enough then go on to a sixth-form college or whatever, and then we have to make sure that we identify the right ones. I chair the governors of a local inner-city school, which is on its way to becoming a city academy, and I think that it would be ---
Q99 Dr Harris: Sorry to hear that!
Professor Craven: I shall not be chair of the governors after that, because of course they change these things. The point is that, within the school as it stands at the moment, I would dearly like there to be enhanced incentives and opportunities for the undoubtedly bright children who do not perform as well as they should, in some sense or another.
Q100 Chairman: A brief comment, Professor Baker?
Professor Baker: GuildHE institutions would also welcome an idea like that. We would certainly like to explore it; but I would be concerned if it were seen as the only thing that needed to be done. It is the tip of a very large iceberg. It might take the next five per cent from Plymouth Comprehensive, but what about all the other people who, if they had the right aspiration, could also make it? And we are not getting to them, because we need to get them much sooner than 16, 17 or 18.
Q101 Dr Gibson: It is rumoured that Oxford and Cambridge will start it all off. That would really be something, I suppose.
Professor Baker: That will be the day!
Q102 Dr Gibson: I am very pleased that we have cleared up this business of the contact and workload that students have and the comparison. The other lot slid out of it by saying it was contact hours; it is much more than that. The Chairman pointed that out and so we have that clear. The other thing I wanted to ask you about is the QAA, Professor Baker. What do you think of the QAA?
Professor Baker: I would agree with the comments made in the previous session, that it does have a lot of teeth. Bear in mind that GuildHE institutions have had a lot of experience of the QAA over recent years, because we have not been dealing with them just in terms of institutional audit but most of our members have been awarded taught degree-awarding powers; after a rigorous assessment exercise, university title; and, in a smaller but growing number of cases, research degree-awarding powers. My own institution went through the taught degree-awarding powers assessment some three years ago, and it was a two-and-a-half-year process. Believe me, it was not easy. So I think that the QAA does have teeth; it does look very long and hard at institutions, and their quality assurance processes in particular. It does not give away the confidence vote or the taught degree-awarding powers award lightly; so I do think that it is fit for purpose.
Q103 Dr Gibson: But you think there is something missing? In your submission to us you did suggest that its interaction with the public left a lot to be desired.
Professor Baker: I think that there are issues about the PR relating to the QAA.
Q104 Dr Gibson: Such as?
Professor Baker: In terms of the assay group, as we also call ourselves, the fact that we are different but equal to the rest of the sector. That is the kind of point I would particularly want to make, in terms of the public being aware that the QAA is a body that does not regulate the sector but it is one element of a particularly strong and robust set of mechanisms, which includes self-regulation internally, externally, within the sector, and the QAA is an overarching body which does give the requisite confidence in the system.
Q105 Dr Gibson: Your body language says you agree with that, Ms Bacon.
Ms Bacon: Yes, it certainly has teeth as far as further education delivering higher education.
Q106 Dr Gibson: Let me ask you about the degree classification business. We are comparing degrees now in this session. A First from the University of Portsmouth or the University College Plymouth St Mark & St John - is that the same as a First at Oxford, in your opinion? Or would my snobbery come out if I were looking at two people with Firsts from different places?
Professor Craven: It is a different description. There are different elements to the courses, as colleagues said in the previous session. I am firmly in favour of the achievement record as a much better record of what a student has achieved. One of the points that I think is very important is that more than half of the degrees in my institution are in one way or another accredited by a professional body, whether they are architects, accountants, pharmacists, engineers, or whatever it might be. We have a very strong belief that they are - "enforcing" is perhaps not quite the right word - working to national standards; so I am comforted in those areas that there is very serious comparability between the degrees in different places. I think that it is inevitable that universities will have different reputations - publication of league tables does not help that - and that employers will take different messages according to the name of the university on the degree certificate; but I suspect they differentiate more than they should rather than less than they should.
Q107 Dr Gibson: Would you stand up and say publicly that the QAA keeps standards pretty uniform across the country?
Professor Craven: I bear the bruises from a recent QAA audit, which came out very successfully. They were very clear, however, in making sure that our processes for ensuring our standards were robust and delivered what we said they did - and that is what they should be doing.
Q108 Dr Iddon: What is the attraction for higher education institutes and further education colleges in becoming universities? Why is there that upward pressure?
Ms Bacon: I cannot necessarily speak for all FE colleges, but I am not looking to become a university. I do not deliver higher education out of some desire. We are very proud of where we sit. We know where we sit and we know why we deliver the HE that we do. I suspect that any academic drift is likely to be influenced by funding. I do see things in the FE sector that are being influenced by funding. I think that targets - and we have touched on league tables - are the kinds of things that do influence behaviour. I suppose there is an ambition for a lot of academic staff to be able to teach at what they perceive as a higher level, and I see nothing wrong with that. I certainly believe that my students generally benefit from the fact that we have a core of staff who are able to deliver very successfully at a higher education level. I guess it is about funding. I think that there will be a drive coming out of the demographic change. Interestingly, as I understand it, one of our university validating partners has just stopped working with all of its existing FE network. I throw that into the discussion, because I think that, both with the current economic downturn - which has not been touched on and clearly will be a key factor - but also the demographics around that core age group of 17 to 20, it will start to change behaviour; and we have to be very careful in looking at what is there now as against what may be there in the future.
Professor Baker: I think that there is a very clear answer, certainly from institutions like GuildHE institutions, my own included, where we have university title or university college title. That is about continuous improvement and self-determination. The process you go through to be awarded taught degree-awarding powers, to call yourself a university or a university college, is a very rigorous one. It is one that we want to go through to be able to pass the test, to improve in the process. Certainly our experience in GuildHE institutions is that we have improved as institutions; we have become more confident as institutions; that we are on a par; we are different from but equal to other institutions that already have the title. The ability to award your own taught and research degrees does mean that you have a lot more freedom of manoeuvre to respond, in terms of what you are good at and what the communities that you serve want.
Q109 Dr Iddon: Professor Craven, have you anything to add to that?
Professor Craven: I represent the Alliance, which is the only mission group of universities that has both pre and post-1992 members. I was in a pre-1992 university when that change happened and moved to Portsmouth in 1997. By the time I moved, I was quite clear that the activities of the university into which I moved at Portsmouth were of comparable quality in some very broad sense to the institution I had left. That includes the sort of local engagement that Mr Marsden talked about; it includes selective research activities. From the point of view of somebody who has moved across that line, therefore, I think that the acquisition of university title by those of us who gained it in 1992 is absolutely justified.
Q110 Dr Iddon: Can I put it to you that when an HE institute or a college moves up the university scale it sheds some of its lower-level teaching, which is really critical to the local economy?
Professor Craven: I do not observe that in my own institution particularly. We run foundation modules.
Professor Baker: I do not agree with that. We have not shed anything at all; in fact, quite the opposite. The flexibility that we now have in our institutions, including my own, is that we are offering a broader range and are able to introduce foundation degrees: both in terms of being awarded at Marjon and also, much more appropriately, in partnership with FE institutions and indeed sixth-form colleges that we are working with - so not at all.
Q111 Dr Iddon: What about Merseyside, where these skills are critical?
Ms Bacon: Absolutely critical. The Association of Colleges' National Skill Group was meeting yesterday and one of the things that we were particularly focusing on was the whole issue of seeing further education colleges as part of the solution, not just as deliverers of skills. I still think that there is a whole debate that we need to embrace around learning as against skills. The colleges have much to offer as strategic partners. We are well informed by our local communities. We know what the demands are on the ground, and indeed very much welcome and hope to see more of the flexibilities to enable us to deliver. For example, I know that my staff were in a manufacturing company yesterday, helping them with some skills during the current downturn. I do not think that we need to be precious about at what level. It could be about basic skills; it could be about foundation degree level.
Q112 Dr Iddon: I have one final question on external assessors. Can I put it to you that most universities perhaps have too cosy a relationship with their external assessors - I am talking of course at the undergraduate level - and that perhaps they ought to be appointed to the universities from an outside organisation, so that this cosiness no longer exists? Have I provoked you?
Professor Craven: I do not believe that it is a cosy relationship. We certainly have a very clear practice that if somebody from the department of economics in another university is our external examiner in economics, we do not reciprocate; so that none of our economists become their external examiners. That is not the case, therefore. We train external examiners. They come to induction sessions when they begin. They have the opportunity to write to me as vice-chancellor, as well as to interact with the department. When I was an external examiner I did write to the vice-chancellor of a university, raising a particular problem, and was properly dealt with. I am not sure that the selection process for external examiners is the issue, therefore. I think that it does need to be a professionally conducted activity, and I believe that in most cases it is.
Professor Baker: I would very much agree with that. I do not recognise the cosiness. If there is a phrase that applies to external examiners, it is "critical friends", with the emphasis on the "critical". They are there to oversee the appropriateness of our processes in relation to examinations. Again, practically all the GuildHE members have gone through the system in terms of taught degree-awarding powers over the last few years, and that process has been very rigorously and independently assessed; so I do not see the cosiness at all.
Q113 Dr Gibson: Have they ever failed to sign? "I refuse to sign the final paper." In other words, they say, "This has all been done. We have scrutinised it and this is the degree stratification". Have you ever had the experience of someone saying, "This is rubbish. You guys are dominating the First-Class market for various purposes"?
Professor Baker: Not in my institution.
Q114 Dr Gibson: You have never had that?
Professor Baker: No.
Q115 Dr Gibson: Do you recognise it happens?
Professor Craven: I recognise that external examiners write critical reports and sometimes report things to the vice-chancellor that need changing. That does happen.
Q116 Ian Stewart: You may have been in the room in the other session and heard the questions about part-time students. All three of you have put submissions in with comments about part-time students. Why do part-time students get a raw deal, and what needs to be done to change that?
Ms Bacon: Again, the report I referred to earlier covers this extremely well.
Q117 Ian Stewart: The Campaign for Learning report?
Ms Bacon: Yes. There is a considerable expectation, I think, that part-time students will be supported by employers. It was an interesting statistic in the report, because it is borne out by our experience. Only half of full-time HE students who are employed and therefore studying part-time are actually supported by the employers, and then usually only fees - nothing else. It drops to only a fifth for part-time. That is an issue. We see it all the time with our adult students: that, time and time again, they may be working but they are not necessarily supported. Some employers will give some time; some may make a financial contribution. We have had students saying to us, "Please don't tell our employers that we are studying", because that may not go down very well. I think that there is therefore a big gap between what employers recognise they need - and we are obviously keen to and do deliver - and what individuals need, in terms of that whole lifelong learning agenda.
Professor Craven: I certainly agree with that, but I think that "full-time" and "part-time" is a convenient description. To make it much more flexible for students to be able to complete a course, sometimes doing what one would call a full-time load and sometimes not doing a full-time load, is very important. That is something the fees review, which we expect fairly soon, has to look into, to make that more flexible.
Professor Baker: I think part-time students get a raw deal because we are still stuck in a mindset that assumes that the vast majority of students are full-time and 18 years old. Life simply is not like that. I hope that we can move away from a division between full-time and part-time and just call them students who are learning in different modes.
Q118 Ian Stewart: Should there be a national bursary scheme?
Professor Baker: Broadly speaking, I would argue for a national bursary scheme. I would hope that it would be part of the forthcoming review. For me, it is about equity, fairness and transparency, and making sure that all those people who are able to benefit from higher education are able to do so, regardless of the financial issues.
Q119 Ian Stewart: I think we can take it that the other two on the panel are nodding?
Ms Bacon: Yes.
Professor Craven: Yes, I am happy to support that.
Q120 Chairman: The issue of funding is absolutely crucial to this whole argument and I just wanted briefly to put this to all the panel. Are you saying that you want part-time HE students to be funded on a par with full-time HE students? Is that what we are saying?
Ms Bacon: It is certainly what I am saying. We need to get to a stage where, as the jargon has it, the funding is "mode-free". There is also an issue about funding both for first-step learning, for people to get onto the learning ladder - and I am thinking particularly of mature students there - and about funding of Level 3.
Q121 Chairman: I am talking specifically at Level 4.
Ms Bacon: Yes, I think that it should be mode-free.
Professor Baker: Yes.
Professor Craven: Yes.
Chairman: That is a very interesting note on which to end. Could I thank you all very much indeed. I am sorry that we have rushed through the session, but there is always so much to ask.